Today’s guest post comes from Barton Price. Barton is the Director of the Centers for Academic Success and Achievement at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). He has taught courses in American history, religious studies, and history of rock and roll at IPFW. Price has a Ph.D. in American religious history from Florida State University. His research interests vary from religion in the American heartland to the scholarship of teaching and learning in religious studies and history. Here he offers some thoughts on teaching the U.S. History survey course gleaned from his administrative experience in an academic support center.
The start of another semester is upon us. It is a new opportunity to teach students about America’s past, to correct longstanding inaccurate assumptions about that past, and to introduce students to the ways of thinking like a historian. It is also an opportunity to foster student academic success. The introductory survey course is a venue for such accomplishments.
The introductory course is often the proving ground for a professor’s teaching, for a department’s service to the general education, and for a college or university’s investment in student academic success and retention. That is a heavy cross to bear for a course that often does not excite students and professors alike. The content is sweeping and fast-paced. The learning outcomes are often grandiose and nearly insurmountable. The audience is often uninterested and wants to complete a general education credit. And, in many cases, the instructors are part-time, contracted labor with minimal institutional investment or allegiance.
Small wonder, then, that the survey of American history course is listed among the Gateway Courses by the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. To qualify for Gateway Course status, a class must be foundational in nature; have a high enrollment number; and have a high rate of students receiving D, F, withdraw, or incomplete. The breakpoint for Gateway Courses is 30% of the total registered end the course with a D, F, W, or I. The Gardner Institute ranks the introductory history survey course in the top five of highest risk Gateway Courses. It falls below College Algebra, Calculus, biology, and chemistry.
In an editorial on his institution’s website, Gardner cites a culture of academic neglect and apathy as the cause for the persevering problem of Gateway Course failure rates. Gardner, a veteran professor of history at the University of South Carolina, speaks as an “insider” about faculty culture, but his comments are more accusatory than they are constructive. He is nevertheless correct that, in many cases, the neglect of strong teaching and learning in the introductory courses fails to serve the interests of faculty, students, and institutions of higher learning. This essay offers constructive suggestions for integrating student academic success skills and learning support services into the design and delivery of the introductory history course in order to enhance student performance and success rates.
Academic Success Skills
Because most students who enroll in introductory courses are freshmen (under 30 credit hours), they have not developed the academic skills necessary to thrive in college. This is a limitation for students who are enrolled Gateway Courses where the expectation is that student adapt to college learning with limited assistance from their instructors. To the instructors’ credit, it is difficult to assist all, half, or even a quarter of the students enrolled in the large lecture format courses. However, there is much that the professor can learn from the literature on academic success skills that can inform how he or she teaches and encourages student learning. These skills include time management, critical reading, note taking, and test-taking strategies.
The literature on academic success skills stresses that students plan and manage their time effectively. This includes balancing work, school, and life. It also includes planning the semester as a whole. The course syllabus is a time management tool. It is a schedule of readings, lessons, assignments, etc. So, in one sense, professors have done a great job in providing a framework for students’ time management.
One helpful suggestion is to include checkpoints within the syllabus calendar. If there is a test coming in two weeks, then insert a date in the calendar that encourages students to study. If there is a paper due at the end of term, then include small assignments that build up to the final assignment. The second strategy is often built into a junior-level or senior-level research seminars, but it is not as evident in a freshmen-level survey course. If the class size accommodates term papers, then providing small papers that develop the writing process would be helpful.
Students who lack critical reading skills are less likely to excel in survey classes because they do not have the abilities to read efficiently and to comprehend what they read. While history professors are often sensitive to students lack of familiarity with reading and interpreting primary sources, this may not be the case with secondary sources. However, students may not be doing course readings because they have not discovered how to read efficiently or effectively. Professors can aid student reading by providing reading guides.
Reading guides may include a list of pointed questions about the reading assignment or reading prompt that gives the student ideas how to survey and analyze the material through the pre-reading, reading, and review steps. First, have the student identify what type of reading assignment it is. People read books differently than they do book chapters or articles and essays. But many of the skills in “gutting” a book can be useful in reading a shorter piece.
One effective reading strategy is called SQR3, or SQRRR. It stands for survey, questions, read, recite, review. Professors can provide students with an empty outline and encourage students to complete it to develop pre-reading skills of surveying the text. A list provided with pointed questions about the text allows students to identify specific evidence or ideas in the text. For the “recite” part of the reading process, students could produce an abstract of the reading. Together with the outline and the reading questions, the abstract will help as students complete the review part of the reading in class.
Students who do not take complete or effective notes in class do not have the material to review after class. Students often do not know how to take good notes. Just as we try to avoid the survey history course becoming “one damn thing after another,” we have to caution not encouraging students to write down “one damn thing after another.” Exhaustive notes are not effective. Neither are paltry notes.
What students most often struggle with is how to translate the ideas that they receive in class into an organization of ideas. There are four common note taking styles. The first is the Outlining method. The Charting method organizes ideas in a similar fashion, but its spatial orientation is along a horizontal axis, instead of the vertical orientation of the Outlining method. These methods follow most conventional lecture structures. However, the recent trend in “flipping” classes prompts students to take new approaches to taking notes. The Concept Map method may follow this new approach to classroom learning. Professors may need to model the Concept Map method by creating such a map on the blackboard or whiteboard. The last method is the Cornell Method. It has receive a great amount of research to show its effectiveness. That effectiveness relies on a great amount of coaching by an instructor. Or it relies on a restructuring of the lecture to highlight key concepts and to summarize the lecture in a succinct manner.
The professor’s selection of a lecture style or note taking method is less important as is the decision to coordinate the two correctly. Most of the recent research on note taking has identified that it is critical that students learn what notes to take and how to take those notes because the professor has provided note taking guides.
Learning Support Services
Colleges and universities offer services to students that assist students in their academic performance and skill development. Professors can help their students perform at a higher level by partnering with the learning support services and by using those services appropriately and effectively. These services include tutoring, Supplemental Instruction, and a writing center.
While tutoring is an effective method of helping students with their performance in a class, there is a difficulty in supporting all sections of a given survey course in history. Because professors have their own unique designs for a course, tutors may not be able to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of these classes. It is imperative that an instructor recommend some of his or her students to be tutors because those students are familiar with the professor’s approach to teaching.
A support service that is often more effective than tutoring is Supplemental Instruction. Supplemental Instruction offers group-based learning and study sessions led by an experienced student. The SI leader attends lecture and meets with the professor to develop materials that prompt students to engage the class material. Often SI sessions involve problem-based learning that reinforces lecture content. It is analogous to the professor having a teaching assistant with the exception that Supplemental Instruction does not involve grading. Nor does it produce academic work that should be graded. This is because Supplemental Instruction is optional. However, its support for a specific class section ensures closer fidelity to the content and delivery offered by the class’s professor.
A writing center is effective with student papers. It is most effective in helping students develop their ideas. It is not intended to be a proofreading shop. While many faculty outside of English composition or rhetoric expect a writing center to correct common writing errors, that is not a writing center’s purpose. Rather, writing consultants assist students in developing theses and organizing supporting ideas.
Professors can help writing consultants by sending essay prompts to the writing center at the beginning of the semester. They could also hold a meeting with the writing center staff. These overtures allow the writing consultants to grasp the professor’s expectations in order to assist the students in meeting those expectations.
The suggestions offered in this essay are intended to encourage professors to apply new strategies in helping their students succeed in the introductory survey course in history. In my experience teaching and directing an academic support department, I see that most professors possess a commitment to students exceling and to learning from these courses. I have also witnessed how many professors have integrated many of these suggestions into their courses. I am encouraged by this commitment and effort. Further collaboration between faculty and support staff in the arenas of student success should serve as the frontier for student achievement and learning.